John Winthrop and Puritanism

John Winthrop and Puritanism


The clashing ideals of Puritanism and colonialism creating confusion for John Winthrop.

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How to Remain True to Religion Amidst Division

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Puritanism and John Winthrop

As Edmund S. Morgan appropriately asserted in The Puritan Dilemma, “Puritanism required that he [man] rest his whole hope in Christ but taught him that Christ would utterly reject him unless before he was born God had foreordained his salvation” (7).  Such pessimism plagued John Winthrop throughout his jurisdiction in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  His confidence in reforming the world to the specifications of the kingdom of God clashed with the realities of Puritanism, thus distancing himself from the true ideals that he once previously treasured.  Such inconsistencies were evident from his initial appointment as a leader in the colony, where his willingness to serve proved a welcome addition.

The Puritan Dilemma outlines a basic history of the distaste of Puritanism, beginning with the ascension of James I to the throne of the England, promising to “harry them [Puritans] out of the land” (24).  Because of his experience as an attorney in the Court of Wards, Winthrop was able to witness firsthand the sin that had permeated among the nobility.  Though, as a Puritan, he believed strongly in the assertion of England as a land suitable for punishment.  As Edmund Morgan theorizes, “If God should descend in his wrath to punish England, as she so justly deserved, John Winthrop knew he would suffer with the rest” (37).  Accordingly, it was most likely difficult for Winthrop to have a supreme hope in Christ, while realizing that his foreordination was uncertain, leaving his efforts to be worthless despite his audacity.  The ensuing experience in Massachusetts would try his absolute Puritan faith, thus conflicting with the initial purpose of colonization.

John Winthrop sought the advice of fellow Puritans in deciding to participate in a mass migration to the New World.  However, he realized that to attain economic prosperity without the threat of persecution, such a move was necessary.  Morgan asserts one of the confusions that plagued Winthrop “Would it not be deserting the world and one’s fellow sinners to flee into a brave new land?” (54). He accordingly attempted to rationalize the situation, asserting the minimal number of people that would make the journey.  Winthrop was a man of notable reputation, especially with his status as landed gentry, and was accordingly plagued with doubt as to his purpose in participation in the exodus.  He eventually ceded to the impressions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, realizing worldly advice that “his services would be more acceptable to God in Massachusetts than in England” (55).  His service in the colony would encounter fierce opposition, showing how Puritanism clashed with his personality.

As opposed to resting his hope in Christ, Winthrop often relied on his personal judgment as opposed to the grace of God.  “He could see too easily the hand of God operating in his favor whenever his opponents met with some misfortune, and he took a morbid satisfaction in such events” (136).  The simplicity of the government allowed for actions to be dealt with swiftly, though critics of Winthrop felt that the lack of harsh repercussions mirrored dissention in the colony.  In times where severity was necessary, Winthrop asserted “In the infancy of plantations, justice should be administered with more lenity than in a settled state, because people were more apt to transgress” (141).  The New World required audacity, and the attempts of Winthrop to retain purity amidst political division proved futile, as society progressed.

John Winthrop asserted his devotion to Puritanism, despite personal tendencies elsewhere.  The “City upon a hill” ideal could not fully be accomplished without adaptation to New World characteristics.  His desire of reformation clashed with his religious beliefs, causing confusion in a society formed for curing the ills of England.

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